31 May, 2009


In Book 21 of Teofilo Folengo's Baldus (1517), a spoof epic in macaronic hexameters—that is, half Latin, half Italian, the latter frequently provincial—the eponymous hero and his friends find themselves in battle with a dragon or serpent (anguis, serpens, draco, drago, dragus, according to taste); finally, after one warrior rides its back and punches it to the ground, on the verge of death, it transforms into a formosa putina. . . cui nomen Smiralda fuit, de gente luparum, a beautiful girl by name of Smiralda, of the race of she-wolves. Falchetto, the dog-man leading the attack on the dragon, is about to duff Smiralda up too, but she entreats him:
Talibus ingannans, Falchettum porca carezzat
barbozzoque eius digitis putanella duobus
fat squaquarinellum, velut est ars vera piandi,
sive carezzandi menchiones atque dapocos. (ll. 446-449)
The putanella, little whore, fat squaquarinellum eius barbozzo duobus digitis: she does something to his chin [barbozzo in dialect, see here] with two fingers. The poem's recent translator, Ann Mullaney, renders the passage:
Tricking him with such words, the pig caresses Falchetto; the little whore takes his chin between two fingers and gives it a small tug, in accordance with the true art of getting and stroking dolts and low-lifes.
In Emilio Faccioli's 1989 translation into modern Italian, this squaquarinellus is given as 'con due dita gli va titillando il barbozzo'. Folengo's own phrase derives from the Mantuan idiom far squaquarin, which Cherubini paraphrases as far vezzi, that is, 'to fondle, caress, flatter'. The word seems to come in turn from the verb squaquarare, which appears three times in the poem: 1.144, 7.437, and 24.39, translated variously 'to sport', 'to live it up', and 'to soak up', where Cherubini offers ciarlare (to chat) and gozzovigliare (to carouse). The more usual meaning is 'to soften, quicken, loosen', also 'to shit, blurt out, reveal a secret', with connotations of both diarrhoea and soft cheese, two Dalinian motifs that occur throughout the poem.

At any rate, it strikes me that Smiralda's chin-pulling alludes to the well-known gesture made by Thetis when entreating Zeus at Iliad 1.501: she dexiterēi d' ar' hup' anthereōnos helousa, takes hold of his chin from below with her right hand, while at 8.371 Athena reports that Thetis ellabe cheiri geneiou, grasped [Zeus'] chin with her hand. (Compare 10.454, where the Trojan spy Dolon is about to do the same to Diomedes.) This gesture is illustrated in Ingres' rather garish and ungainly early painting:

Samuel Butler, in a notorious 1892 lecture arguing for the poem's female authorship, remarks, à propos of this passage, that 'it is still a common Italian form of salutation to catch people by the chin. Twice during the last summer I have been so seized in token of affectionate greeting, once by a lady and once by a gentleman.' Butler's holiday reminiscences aside, Thetis is not making the gesture as an 'affectionate greeting'—she is indicating her suppliancy. For Walter Leaf, who, like Butler, translated the Iliad, with a little help from his friends, the action suggests a beaten warrior who 'can only clasp his enemy's legs to hamper him, and turn aside his face so that he cannot see to aim the final blow, until he has at least heard the prayer for mercy'. R. B. Onians, in his fantastical Origins of European Thought (1951), disputes Leaf's interpretation, arguing that the chin (geneios), like the knee (gonu), is related to genus and generation: 'this would also explain why the chin, as if holy in the same way as the knee, was clasped by the Greek suppliant'.

Folengo's Smiralda, whose name has already been misheard as Smerdola two hundred lines earlier, is not humbly entreating Falchetto. Her gesture is instead ironic, a two-fingered teasing or chucking of the chin, softening Falchetto's heart and brain: a solicitative trollop, Thetis in burlesque.

24 May, 2009


Imagine you're a harmless drudge. You've been assigned the task of scouring the works of Sir Thomas Browne for new words, or new uses of old words, or antedatings, and so you sit in your bright-lit windowless cubicle, poring over Urne Buriall, and The Garden of Cyrus, and then it's on to Religio Medici, and finally the Vulgar Errors. In the last of these, not quite as lexically fecund as the other works, you stumble on this:
What therefore may consist with history, by cessation of Oracles with Montacutius we may understand their intercision, not abscission or consummate desolation; their rare delivery, not total dereliction, and yet in regard of divers Oracles, we may speak strictly, and say there was a proper cessation.
You have little understanding of what it means, since you are only a humble word-spotter. And the word you spot, in this case, is intercision. You check your lists, and those of your colleagues; nothing yet. The word, whatever it means, is contrasted with 'consummate desolation', so it must mean something less than a complete destruction, and it must correspond in some degree to 'rare delivery'. More than that is hard to say. You check Cockeram, who says it means 'An intreating in ones behalf', clearly confusing it with intercession, which he has just defined as 'An intreaty in ones behalf'. You check Blount, who has 'a cutting off in the midst', from Latin intercisio. Clearly, whatever intercision means, it has a lot to do with intercisio. Du Cange merely has 'injuria', which seems to help little. How about modern Latin dictionaries? Lewis and Short offers 'a cutting through'. The OLD has nothing.

You are not stuck yet; intercisio, you reason, is clearly a nominal form of the verb intercido, which in turn is inter (between) and caedo (cut). So what do your lexica say on the verb? Here you strike gold. Lewis and Short list two intercidos: the first is 'to cut asunder, cut up, divide, pierce, cut through, part, divide, mangle, destroy', this clearly corresponding to the listed noun. But there is another: 'to fall between, to occur meanwhile, to happen, to fall to the ground, to go to ruin, be lost, perish'. This is promising. OLD, likewise, has 'to fall between, to be lost or wasted, go astray; to be lost from memory, fall into oblivion, be forgotten; to perish incidentally, to be destroyed during an action; to cease to exist, be lost, lapse, fail'. Intercisio, and therefore intercision, must have been formed from one of these verbs, each differing in shade. But which?


This is the classic problem of the neologism. Without an accepted context and range of meanings, a consuetudo, it can be impossible to determine the meaning of a word. It turns out, however, that intercision is not a neologism. In one context, in fact, it is common: the theology of grace. Lutheran doctrine held that it was possible for a member of the elect to fall from grace forever; Calvinism held that this was impossible, for a man's sin cannot override the divine act of bestowing grace. Thus Peter, who denied Christ, was nonetheless saved. This fall from grace is called intercisio or intercision; but even here the meaning is not clear-cut, at least in English. In 1626, the Cornish theologian Francis Rous published his Testis veritatis, writing:
God is for the Saints all the way from the first foreknowledge, unto the finall glory; what Arminius or [Peter] Bertius can make any Apostacy to be against us, when God is throughly for us? God being stedfast with us from Election to glorification, no interloper can come in with intercision to cut off and put a sunder this continued chaine of happinesse, which God hath joynd together and guardeth all the way.
In the same year, George Carleton, Bishop of Chichester, argues likewise: 'This is certaine, all is not gone, all is not cut off by intercision; here is a Seede of God abiding. . . If all be not falne away, then this man in whom it abideth can not fall totally.' In both of the above quotations, intercision sounds like something permanent. Carleton returns to the theme in 1629, claiming that 'Man cannot by any sinne make void any act of Gods', and arguing against the possibility of 'an intercision of justifying grace, caused by the sinnes of the flesh'.

In 1633 George Downham, Bishop of Derry, thinks it 'ridiculous' that 'there should bee an intercision of justification (which I proved before to be a continued act) so oft as there is an intermission of the act of faith'. Here the intercision seems more temporary, as a phenomenon accompanying an intermission. A similar meaning is found outside a theological context, in 1641, when John Jackson notes, 'there hath beene of late an intercision, and interruption herein'.

Ambiguous also is a line from a 1627 oration by Thomas Gataker: 'Their death is rather a departing, or a going out of this world, or a passage to heaven, or a returne to God, then a deceasing, or surceasing, or intermission, or intercision, yea, or diminution, either of life, or of their good or happy estate.' We are tangled up by conjunctions: the or cannot always be an 'or rather', but may be between intermission and intercision, or intercision and diminution. Trying to pinpoint the exact meaning of 'intercision' comes down to a morass of hard-to-determine textual passages of uncertain relations to one another.

The OED lists the Browne passage under the meaning 'The action of cutting off the course of, stopping, or interrupting, esp. temporarily; the fact of being interrupted or ceasing for a time.' Immediately preceding the Browne is a quotation from one Richard Montagu—in Latin, Montacutius—Bishop of Norwich, Browne's home-town. The passage in full runs:
Doth ARMINIUS maintaine touching finall Perseverance, (you must tell mee, my good Informers, for I have not read him) that sometime the Called and Elect of God, the Chosen ones and Justified by Faith, such as S. PETER was, though they doe fall totally for a Time, shall yet recover necessarily againe, and not fall away finally, or for ever? If this be Arminianisme, and so his conclusion, then therein He holdeth with ARMINIUS. But I have bin assured, that ARMINIUS did hold as the Lutherans in Germany doe, not only Intercision for a Time, but also Abscission and Abjection too, for ever.
This in fact is from Montagu's 1625 Appello Caesarem, against which Rous published his Testis the following year. The last line looks suspiciously similar to Browne's 'intercision, not abscission', and the entry's compiler must have thought that Browne was referring to this in writing 'with Montacutius'. Montagu's 'Intercision for a Time' is clearly the same intercision as Downham's and Jackson's: an interruption, rather than the permanent sundering of Rous and Carleton. If this is Montagu's intercision, then presumably it is Browne's too. In 1647, John Trapp seems to make a similar distinction when he writes that 'Happy for us, that we are kept by the power of God to salvation, 1 Pet. 1. 5. for else it were possible for us to fall away and perish: an intercision there might be, nay an utter excision from Christ'.

The problem is that the 1625 passage is not the origin of Browne's words, at least not directly. Browne is in fact translating another line from Montagu from Latin. This is from his 1635 refutation of the ecclesiastical history of Baronius, and glosses the word cessare, normally translated as 'cease':
Cessare dicitur id, quod cum olim in usu frequentissimo fuisset, postea rarissime adhibetur: non penitus autem cessare, sed respectu prioris frequentissimi usus. Secundo, Cessare dicitur aliquid dupliciter: vel per Intercisionem ad aliquod tempus; vel per Abscisionem, et desolationem consummatam.
To paraphrase: cessare is what happens when a frequent activity becomes much rarer, without necessarily stopping altogether. And cessare can mean either an intercisio, or an abscision or consummate desolation. It is clear, Montagu continues, that the cessatio of the oracles was not an abscisio, but only an intercisio, for the oracles continued to speak thereafter. The natural reading of this passage is that after the cessatio, the oracles were still delivered, only much less frequently; in other words, that they fell into disuse. One might compare Quintilian: 'verba intercidant invalescantque temporibus', 'words become obsolete or current with the lapse of years'. This is not only the natural reading, it is consonant with what many other people had written about the oracles. To understand the word this way, therefore, would necessitate not only knowing other uses of intercisio, but also the contemporary discourse about this rather arcane subject: and how many lexicographers would be capable of that?

The 1625 passage, with its 'Intercision for a Time', seems to resolve the question in the other direction: presumably, though not necessarily, Montagu intended the same distinction in each case, and by intercisio and intercision meant a temporary interruption in proceedings. The oracles, then, would stop being given, but then later return. Nobody else, to my knowledge, ever argued this. And so the claim has a rather spectral quality to it: it rests on no consuetudo, and has no support other than the use of a similar word in a different language in a different work. If Montagu's Appello had been lost, we would have had, I think, to read differently his intercisio, and so Browne's intercision. All of a sudden, the meaning of this word, a museum-piece, looks highly contingent.

19 May, 2009

The Shrine of Ammon

Upper Clapton, on the edge of the largest Hasid community in London, just north of the old Murder Mile, an urim's throw from the Lea, and from the cricket grounds alongside Springfield Park, on the corner of the Common, by the fountains, with children being children and the buses idling by, and the endless young women in long black skirts, with their remarkable faces, on a bright Sunday afternoon, presaging an evening of poetry, I find myself in the Good Shepherd, originally erected for the Agapemonites, and latterly occupied by the Georgian Orthodox Church. I politely ask an elder lady, the only person inside, when the church was built.

Ahh, she says, after a pause. Tuesday Saturday.

— No, when was it built? The date, when built?

Ahh. Easter!

The lady's English is evidently somewhat limited. The building, when built? Building. It is curious that we should slip into this sort of bastard pidgin when dealing with those not so gifted with the tongue, as if we were talking to a small child or retard. Still, it is a natural reflex.

Oh. Sixtin centry?

I shake my head. No, I smile, it can't be earlier than the late nineteenth century. But never mind, it's not important.

— And why you want know? You Orthodox?

No, not that.


No, atheist. I don't believe in God.

You no believe God? Why you no believe God?

I reply that I think the language barrier between us too great for that conversation. She tries to convince me that Britain was Orthodox before it was Catholic. In return I try to explain, with some patience, that this is not true, and that in fact Orthodoxy and Catholicism only became distinct religions about four hundred years after Britain was officially Christianised.

You young pipple, you no understand history. You go read history book.

Come, she wants to show me something. In the dark recess of the church is an icon, painted or possibly printed on cloth, fraying authentically at the edges. The image is a rather gangrenous, Gothic Jesus, staring reproachfully out at me.

— You understand, says the lady, when we have this, it all like this, white, dark. Then, last year, you see? She points to the area around the right eye. Is red. Is blood. This is living person here. Then, the day after, varr between Russia Georgia, varr, you understand?

Oh. It's magic, I say, somewhat startled. She gives me a stern look. It's a miracle, I repeat, nodding my head.

— Yes, miracle. It's miracle. So now you Christian.

Yes, yes, you convinced me. That's amazing.

— Come, come, I baptise you. She takes me by the shoulder. Not today, I fear. I'll come back next week, I promise. I ask to take a picture of the icon. Yes, yes, she beams. I explain that I will bring news of the Orthodox Church, spread its message. We introduce ourselves; she's delighted. It seems a better solution to the situation than simply marching off, or, indeed, being baptised. I'm not ready for the font and aspergill quite yet. In the light of day the world is a little more magical, a little more miraculous; if I have not truly been converted, at least a strange corner of London has acquired that bit more mythical resonance—place made of a space, crisis memorialised in an artist's blood, the heart of a religion yet beating, even surrounded by civic indifference, cynicism, rationalism. I smile, tease, but do not sneer in earnest. I am too curious.

Peiresc explained his willingness to believe the unbelievable, such as the possibility of seeing through walls, because he had himself 'seen things, so incredible without having seen them, that I am, in faith, almost disposed not to be surprised by any other'. —Peter Miller.
Had the Georgian lady seen such things, things incredible to you or me? Had she been victim of a fraud? Perpetrator? Was she insane, stupid? Did she simply allow herself to believe, because believing explained everything that needed explaining? The small accounts for the great, the dash of red on a picture for the reality of the Godhead, Christ, the Spirit, who proceeds from God the Father, and not the Son, thank you very much.

Plutarch. 'Demetrius went so far as to say that it was ridiculous to try in this way to draw great conclusions from small data, not, as Alcaeus puts it, "painting the lion from a single claw," but with a wick and lamp postulating a mutation in the heavens and the universe.' Cleombrotus has just suggested that, since the lamp of the shrine of Ammon consumes less oil each year, so the years must be getting shorter. He responds to Demetrius: 'not to allow that small things are indication of great stands directly in the way of many arts; for it will result in taking away from us the demonstration of many facts and the prognostication of many others.' Proof and prophecy go together, deduction and induction.

I wanted to ask her how, even if she knew it was a sign, she knew she had interpreted it correctly, and what sort of assumptions she had to have in place already before she could reach the conclusion she did. These are the very questions I ask of my scholarly protagonists, such as Peiresc or Plutarch; I fear she would have been just as unable to answer them as the long dead. I wonder, too, what questions I would be at a loss to answer.

01 May, 2009

Flow gently, sweet Afton

You know when you haven't e-mailed someone for a while, and you feel you ought to, but the longer you leave it, the more embarrassed you feel about not contacting them, and the longer still you want to leave it? Well, so it is with the Varieties. Still I walk—a jaunt from Heathrow to London; a stretch in Waltham and Leyton, where the word alright has become a mere two schwas of rising intonation; a saunter through the campus at Imperial, where hard science and technology are symbolised architecturally by flat glass façades in royal blue and hot pink; East Finchley Cemetery, where the dead are erased from memory, as with poor Henry and Agnes Ritchie, above; and so on and so on. Still I read—Lost Girls in the Library this week, amid a sea of prim Courtauldians sharing out table-space between Foucault and Tiepolo, I relish the thrill of postmodern fin-de-siècle child-porn drawn après Beardsley, Mucha and Schiele. Still I write—my 15,000-word, rather Varietesque opus on the Golden Bough should be coming out in a month or two, and I am already several thousand into a new piece on tripod iconography. In the Roth household, life goes on, and even promises to increase in number. All is well. Sure, there is a certain void, where once were varieties. But this will pass. It always does.